The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford – DVD Review

Warner Bros. / 2007 / 160 Minutes / Rated R
Available at Amazon.com February 5, 2008

Directed by
Andrew Dominik

Cast:
Brad Pitt … Jesse James
Mary-Louise Parker … Zee James
Brooklynn Proulx … Mary James
Dustin Bollinger … Tim James
Casey Affleck … Robert Ford
Sam Rockwell … Charley Ford
Jeremy Renner … Wood Hite
Sam Shepard … Frank James
Garret Dillahunt … Ed Miller
Paul Schneider … Dick Liddil
Joel McNichol … Express Messenger
James Defelice … Baggagemaster
J.C. Roberts … Engineer

The Movie

To be honest, there are times when it’s not very much fun to be a movie critic. Sitting through the newest offerings from Jerry Bruckheimer or Larry “The Cable Guy” can make you want to completely give up on film altogether sometimes, but thankfully, there are years like 2007, where you get to experience cinema like No Country for Old Men or There Will Be Blood, and a bit of your faith comes back to you. Its movies like these that make it a privilege to be able to watch films and then have a forum to be able to express to the public just how wonderful cinema can be. Right up there with these soon to be classics was The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, another masterpiece of a film presented to us in 2007, and a movie that marked the emergence of it’s director, and cemented the reputations of much of its cast and crew.

The Assassination of Jesse James is a film working on so many levels that it nearly staggers the mind with its craft and storytelling. All at once, this is a study of the mythology of Westerns, both breaking down its tall tales, yet showing us exactly why the stories were so important to the West. The movie gives us not a single two-dimensional caricature, instead favoring methodical examinations of the time and people involved in these events, creating a rich vision of the West and what its heroes and villains were really like.

You can see why characters in this film would be attracted to Jesse James. He lives like a successful businessman, has children and a beautiful wife, and other men seem to flock to him for his guidance and a bit of his glory. This is a man trying to live his legend, but underneath is a person who is actually deeply troubled, dealing with horrible mood swings, insecurity, and paranoia. In the hands of Brad Pitt, James becomes a man to be feared, admired, loved and pitied, sometimes in a single moment. This is a man that sees the horrible things he’s done, but can’t really stop the path that he’s on, helpless to stop it from continuing.

In congruity with the film’s examination of myth is the film’s theme of celebrity, and what better actor to be at the center of a movie such as this one more than Brad Pitt? With his status in the public eye, Pitt seems to have a fundamental understanding of James, and with that comes what may just be his best performance. All at once, the man can go from a lovable eccentric to the scariest character on screen. There are times when Pitt is like a calculating animal, ready to pounce and dish out death at a moments notice, his presence and threat of violence able to consume the atmosphere in a room.

In perspective, Pitt is so good in the film that it would be almost unthinkable that the film would have a better performance, but that’s exactly what happens here. In Casey Affleck’s Robert Ford, we get an accomplishment that stands right along with any portrayal on screen this year, including those belonging to Javier Bardem and Daniel Day-Lewis. Ford is a man that would be easy to hate. His hero-worship of Jesse James is off-putting and he has the ability fill a setting with enormous tension. He’s so slimy at times that you can‘t stand him, and yet still he manages to display a schoolboy charm at others that can’t help but be endearing.

Take for instance the film’s signature scene, a moment in which Robert is confronted about his life long admiration for James, and must recite facts he had compiled as a child, comparing various facets of the two men. The range of emotion that Affleck is able to convey in this one scene is a masterwork in and of itself. His initial fear of the outlaw is comical, as he stumbles over his words, and dares not make eye contact, but this trepidation gives way to obvious affection as he gives his list of facts, hoping to earn James’ admiration and camaraderie by his dedication to the man. This is what makes Ford’s heartbreak and then anger all the more powerful as he is ultimately rejected for a fool.

Ford’s desperation to be accepted by his hero comes through so clearly in Affleck’s performance that it becomes nearly impossible to not identify with his plight. To seemingly be chosen by a person that means more to you than anything, and then to never truly be accepted is a harsh fate for anyone to experience, and even with all his eccentricities, its that basic part of humanity that shines in this performance. For this reason above all, I’d take Affleck’s Ford over any other screen performance of the year, whether he earns Academy recognition or not.

Fortunately, this film by Director Andrew Dominik will still be a testament to Affleck’s, as well as the director’s own amazing talent and effort. Helped immeasurably by the Oscar nominated work of Cinematographer Roger Deakins, Assassination is an impossibly beautiful movie from start to finish. Snowfall and wheat fields take your breath away behind the lens of Deakins, able to turn the most mundane setting into a gorgeous tapestry of light and shadow. Even a shot that most people wouldn’t notice, such as one in which Frank James (Sam Shepard) berates Robert Ford early in the film, shows an enormous amount of artistry by all here. While the moment is only a close-up of Shepard, with the background slightly out of focus, but in that shot we see exactly how Ford sees the James, perfection standing in a world of chaos, and the experience of the moment becomes just another disappointment that leads him on his path.

Deakins’ cinematography is just one component of Dominik’s larger puzzle though, with everything from the film’s Ken Burns-like narration to the elegant score by Nick Cave and Warren Ellis fitting in this film perfectly to make up an incredible portrait. The result is the most moving and elegant film of 2007. The return on the young promise of Director Andrew Dominik, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is an example of just how powerful film making can be, and hopefully is just the next step for a career that may yield many masterpieces to come.

The DVD

Video
The movie looks absolutely gorgeous on this DVD. Roger Deakins’ cinematography is done a great service by this disc, as the colors pop, and every moment is crystal clear throughout. This is an absolutely beautiful print by Warner Brothers, worthy of this movie. The picture is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with an aspect ratio of 2.35:1.

Audio
Also wondrous is the disc’s Dolby Digital 5.1 audio mix. There’s a great moment early on when they mention how sounds amplified when Jesse was in the room, and you hear the faintest moment of a fly buzzing, but it’s there with tremendous clarity. The music within the film is also given terrific treatment here, as evidenced by the amazing boom of the bass during the film’s opening train robbery.

The Supplements

Trailers – You get a few trailers on this disc for 10,000 Years B.C. and a few others, but this is a pretty disappointing show for this disc on this front. The movie’s DVD was probably rushed out to try and capitalize on the movie’s Oscar chances, but still, the HD-DVD and Blu-Ray discs both at least have a documentary on them. Hopefully we’ll get a special edition before too long.

The DVD Lounge’s Ratings for The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford
CONTENT

10
THE VIDEO

10
THE AUDIO

10
SUPPLEMENTS

1
REPLAY VALUE

10

OVERALL
8
(NOT AN AVERAGE)

The Inside Pulse
In my opinion, The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was the best film of 2007. With its gorgeous cinematography and poetic storytelling, the film was the most moving experience in theaters this year. The problems come with this film’s disc, which is bare bones to say the least, but hopefully this will be rectified with a special edition in the near future.